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Mapping out a living through color and repair

In today's world of GPS and app-accessible directions, maps may seem obsolete. However, the role of maps and the stories they represent isn't lost on artist Lisa Middleton, who repairs and adds color to old maps.

By Antoinette Rahn

Everything and everyone has a story to tell. Some are more apt to share that story, while others may

 Lisa Middleton, owner of Great River Arts, at work on a map.

Lisa Middleton, owner of Great River Arts, at work on a map.

dole out details slowly and methodically. Regardless of how or when a story is revealed, if it is, the recipient is given a special gift.

That’s how Lisa Middleton views each mapping project she comes across as a restorer of old maps. She is also an artist using honed skills to bring dimensional color to high resolution reprints of historic maps.

Recently, Ms. Middleton, owner of Great River Arts, shared more about her unique line of work. Plus, she reveals details about family travel experiences she draws on as influence.

Varied Artistic and Familial Influence Leads to Mapping

Antique Trader: We understand some of your greatest artistic influences include contemporary artist Bev Doolittle. As well as artist and designer Louis Tiffany, and Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. What one thing do you most admire about each?

Lisa Middleton: That each stayed true to their individual style. They did not lose their style even when their work was criticized.

AT: As a self-taught artist, how did you develop the method you use to paint maps? Can you tell us a bit about your mapping process?

LM: Many years ago my mother, an author and publisher, acquired a number of old Mississippi River maps. She loved historic maps and she had an insight in to my art skills that prompted her to make copies of them and asked me to paint them. She had asked me to draw a map of the Mormon trail when I was 14 and I continued to work primarily in color. I painted the maps with layers of watercolor and tea, then touched them up with pen and ink. Pretty soon we started selling them at some of her best retailers and we discovered that other people really liked them.

Family Tales and Travels Provide Unique Experiences

Montana Territory map

Painted reprint of a Montana Territory map, produced by the General Land Office in 1883. (Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Arts for use by Antique Trader/Not Permissible for Reprint)

AT: Tell us a bit about growing up in a family that traveled extensively. Were maps readily accessible to you as a child? Did your fascination with them develop as you became an adult?

LM: Our bedtime stories were about my parents’ adventures in Australia, South East Asia, and Europe. Dad would frequently pull out the atlas to show us where we were going on a family trip to Arizona, Florida, Lake Superior. By the time I got my driver’s license I was already pining for international travel, and after some service trips with Teens to Europe, Nepal and China I was inconsolable, like being homesick for a place I have never been.

AT: How many years have you been in business? Do you have a team of employees? Or do you contract with other businesses to complete elements of the mapping work?

Embarking on Artistic Passion Full Time

LM: I have been painting the maps for 11 or 12 years for individual collectors. In 2014 I left my hospital administration job to join the art circuit in Florida, and have continued doing juried art shows all over the country since, in addition to painting for private collectors and designing maps for national parks and big events. Now I have such a high demand I work with one main designer who helps with digital corrections, while I continue to hunt for old maps. When we design custom maps I work with a team of cartographers.

AT: From what we’ve read, your maps are regularly exhibited at art festivals and in galleries. Tell us more about where people can see (or have seen) your work.

LM: I have been at some of the top 10 art shows in the country, Edina in Minneapolis, Bellevue Art Museum Artsfair in Bellevue Washington, and Hotworks Art Festival in Boca Raton, Florida. This summer I will be at Edina, Minneapolis and Jackson Arts Fair in Jackson, Wyoming. I usually plan smaller shows in the area before and after the cornerstone events. I publish my show schedule every month in my newsletter “Art at Heart” and subscribers can follow this link to sign up:

Lisa Middleton's Three Keys to Great Business

  • Find co-workers who love to do what you need help with.
  • Don't be afraid to get excited about something.
  • If you are able, jump off the cliff and take the risk at doing something you love. If you can't jump off the cliff just yet, take little steps every day to get closer to that cliff!

Maps — More Than Navigational Tools

AT: In your YouTube video we heard you mention how much you enjoy explaining the stories told within old maps. Can you expound?

LM: I think as map lovers we love all the inaccuracies in old maps. I think we like to explore the ideas “why” the inaccuracies were noted: Like the story of how for 70 years the world thought California was an island based on one inaccurate map stolen at sea. Or the fabled story of the northwest passage and the multiple theories of the passage that predate the Lewis and Clark map of 1804. And of course every state has a story as to how it got its shape.

The main reason the old maps appeal to so many different people is the stories. The stories enchant, entertain, and inspire both young and old. Now that we are charting new territories like cellular biology, the ocean floor, and the cosmos, the stories in the old maps are even more dear to all of us, and the enthusiasm is growing with each year as historical maps step further back into history. “Your map is now a part of my children’s heritage.”

Tips for Map Care and Storage

AT: What are some of the most common ‘issues’ you encounter with maps submitted for repair?

Before and After map

Before and after: High resolution reprint of a Petermann of the Great Plains map, circa 1893, before and after Middleton removes indications of creases and tears, and hand paints. (Photo courtesy of Great River Arts for use by Antique Trader/Not Permissible for Reprint)

LM: The hardest kinds of maps for us to repair are the creased maps. The first thing I always recommend is that if a family has an old map folded up in a book or a box that they open it immediately and iron it face down with a medium temperature iron and gently flatten it enough to be rolled.

Next I tell people to get a high resolution scan of the map in color, that way you will always have a copy of the map for review and study. Then, get the map framed. The first year just buy the frame itself, and use regular glass. Keep the map on a wall in a dimly lit room until you can upgrade to UV resistant glass or museum glass, but even then, don’t keep the historic document under constant florescent lighting or daily UV rays. Finally, I plead with families who have historical atlases to not separate the maps from the original biding. The binding in the old atlases are a dear treasure to those who collect old books and cherish the craftsmanship that went into attaching each map to the binding by hand. 

AT: What's the price range and time frame to complete special request mapping repair/painting work you do?

LM: The gift reproductions are under $40, limited edition prints are about $150, and hand painted original maps that I’ve restored and enlarged (about 36 x 45 inches or larger) are $1,250. I usually request six weeks, but generally I work very hard to get them finished in three.

Mapping Work Opens Doors to Study of History, Geography

AT: How many maps do you personally own? Is there a certain map or mapping interest with which you are smitten?

LM: What a great question!

We started our collection with early French Maps of the Mississippi River, because my mom as an author focused on life along the Mississippi River Valley. Then I started collecting maps of the Headwaters of the Missouri River when I moved to the Rocky Mountains about 12 years ago!

My seasonal travels to Florida inspired a flourish of early maps of Florida of course and early maps of the world and the Golden Age of Discovery. Now I’m learning about the Santa Fe Trail and Southwestern cattle trails. As well as the fight early Texans had against two nations simultaneously — Spain and the Comanche.

As your readers know, once a person starts studying old maps and combining that study with a little bit of travel (and regional food) one can see how a historical tapestry gets woven into another, and all the old maps connect in history and landscape. It is very easy to fall in love with all maps at once!

I probably own 100 or more historic or vintage maps, several historic atlases, and thanks to public archives I have infinite access to historical map PDFs, many of which are high enough resolution for me to paint.

Savvy Travel Tips 

AT: What advice do you have for people interested in traveling more?

LM: Don’t be afraid of trying AirBnB. Not only can people experience the hospitality of residents in a specific region, but it can be done on a “shoestring” and a relatively safe manner. I also recommend travel writing, travel photography and itinerary building.

We are in a new era where people are looking for a more personalized travel experience. Travelers want to learn about the culture, the history and the stories of the area. People like to visit places that they have family ties, they’ve heard stories about, history that interests them. This is why travelers buy my maps. The maps depict so much of the history and the culture that they’ve heard about and experienced.

To get in touch with Lisa Middleton: Visit • Call 888-255-7726 •

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